On a night when The Oscars took center stage in Los Angeles, the USC Trojans and Arizona State Sun Devils played out a script that even some folks in Hollywood might have trouble believing.
There was intrigue, as USC needed a win to stay off the NCAA Tournament bubble and Arizona State wanted to snap a two-game losing streak.
There was also drama, as the Sun Devils used a late rally to erase a 10-point deficit with under three minutes to play.
And finally, there was a spectacular finish as Arizona State’s Tra Holder knocked down a pair of game-winning free throws with 6.9 seconds remaining. The clutch makes from the charity stripe gave his team an 83-82 victory that no one will soon forget.
“I'm thrilled, except for the days and weeks that have been taken off my life,” said head coach Bobby Hurley after the win. “That was a traumatic game though. We fought through a lot of adversity but that's what we have been about all through league play.”
Junior Kodi Justice led the way for the Sun Devils (14-16, 7-10 Pac-12) on this day, scoring 22 points in 33 minutes of action. Three others - Holder, Obinna Oleka, and Shannon Evans II - finished the night in double figures for the Maroon and Gold.
“I’m not going to lie, I was feeling myself a little,” Justice said. “I feel like if I’m open inside of halfcourt, I think I can make it.”
While both Arizona State and the Trojans (21-8, 8-8) came out of the gates red hot, no one was better than Justice early on. The Mesa product converted on each of his first four three-point attempts, helping his team to an advantage that would grow to as many as nine points in the first half.
It was some poor execution in the final minutes of the stanza, however, that not only allowed the Trojans to get back into the game, but take a lead at the break.
A blown layup by Tra Holder with 60 seconds remaining led to a three-pointer on the other end to pull the visitors within two at 47-45, and a contested, fadeaway jump shot from Evans (when the clock could have been run all the way down) was answered by a buzzer-beating triple from forward Chimezie Metu to give his team the 48-47 edge.
“We executed well (in the first half), minus the last minute,” said Hurley. “I wish we could have done a better job of that since that made us down one instead of having the lead.”
Save for a brief lapse in focus to start the second stanza, Andy Enfield’s team was able to capitalize on the end to that half and appeared to take full control with about five minutes remaining.
A triple from shooting guard Jonah Matthews put USC up with 79-69 with 5:11 to play, and a Metu slam dunk made the score 81-71 two minutes later. But just when it appeared that the dagger had been stuck into the side of the Sun Devils, a late flurry of clutch shots and Trojan turnovers allowed the home team to pull off its second late comeback in the past three weeks.
The 12-1 run that would eventually win the game started with a pair of Oleka free throws, and the Maroon and Gold ultimately climbed within one after a front-end miss and a Justice three-pointer with 15 seconds left.
A turnover on the ensuing inbound pass landed in the hands of Torian Graham, who was then able to find Holder. The diminutive point guard worked his way into the paint, drawing a foul that led to the game-winning free throws.
USC’s Bennie Boatwright was able to get off a clean look at the buzzer for the win, but that wasn’t how the script was supposed to end.
The miss sealed the deal on the 83-82 victory, a comeback win that only Arizona State’s players saw coming.
“We just kept finding a way,” Justice said. “Even when it seems like this team is out, everything just clicks and comes together for some reason. We made enough big plays and got a big win.”
That find a way mentality is something that should give Sun Devil fans hope as the calendar now turns to March. This team might not have much depth or height, but they do seem to have a knack for snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat.
With rival Arizona and the postseason looming on the horizon, more dream finishes like Sunday’s might just be in store.